Ag Policy Blog

Studies and Focus on Soil, Conservation and Regenerative Agriculture

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Cover crops and conservation tillage can be critical tools for reducing erosion and building organic matter in soils. A study released this week highlighted soil erosion in the Midwest while a separate study suggested the need for financial and technical incentives to spur widespread adoption of cover crops as a conservation practice. (DTN file photo)

Sometimes the email inbox is filled with disconnected news announcements that nonetheless form a pattern.

Today, a pattern filled around soil, conservation practices and regenerative agriculture. All of this ties into policy as Congress and the Biden administration also look for ways to reward farmers for sequestering soil in the ground, or using other climate-smart practices.


Multiple emails came with the news release around a University of Massachusetts Amherst research report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The report states nearly 100 million acres -- more than one-third of the Corn Belt -- has completely lost its topsoil. Further, the research "indicated the U.S. Department of Agriculture has significantly underestimated the true magnitude of farmland erosion."

The study comes from researchers the university's department of geosciences developing a method using satellite imagery to map areas that have lost their "A-horizon soil" -- upper portions of soil rich with organic matter. The data shows the A-horizon soil has been lost on hilltops and ridgelines, which researchers stated shows tillage erosion "is a major diver of soil loss in the Midwest."

The researchers added, "Notably, tillage erosion is not included in national assessments of soil loss and the research highlights the urgent need to include tillage erosion in the soil erosion models that are used in the U.S. and to incentivize adoption of no-till farming methods."

You can see more at….


The Soil Health Partnership, Environmental Defense Fund and the ag consulting firm K-Coe Isom collaborated and released a report on conservation practices. A key finding is that conservation tillage reduces operating costs. "By reducing or eliminating tillage, growers were able to reduce operating costs."

The report looked at seven farms, six of which are members of the Soil Health Partnership and another farmer who is a K-Coe Isom customer. The farms are located in Indiana, Iowa (two farms), Minnesota (two farms), Missouri and Wisconsin. These farms have a range of experience with conservation tillage and growing cover crops.

The goal of the report was to help farmers and their financial partners better understand investment in conservation practices and how they affect a farmer's bottom line.

Among the farms in the analysis, those using conservation tillage growing corn averaged net returns of $377 per acre while farms that conventionally tilled averaged $324 per acre. The gains were comparable for soybeans with net returns of $251 for conservation tillage versus $216 an acre for those conventionally tilled.

Adding cover crops, though, brought down the net returns in the study because of the costs associated with the practices. Net returns for farmers using conservation tillage and growing cover crops saw net returns of $307 an acre. The net returns for soybeans was nearly $173 an acre.

On a press call Wednesday, Environmental Defense Fund's Vincent Gauthier said one of the key findings of the report is that "Cover crops can be part of a profitable system, but it often takes time for farmers to dial it in financially."

Gauthier said the cost-saving impacts of cover crops do not show up as quickly as efficiencies from conservation tillage. Farmers with more experience growing cover crops saw lower costs per-acre than those who recently started adopting cover crops.

Pointing to the widespread benefits of conservation practices, Gauthier said there needs to be financial support and technical assistance to help achieve more widespread use of practices such as cover crops. It's also critical that farmers and stakeholders gather more financial and management data to help make profitable decisions on conservation practices and adoption.

See the Soil Health Partnership, EDF, K-Coe Isom study at….


The Ardmore, Oklahoma-based Noble Research Institute also announced Wednesday that the 75-year-old foundation will build its programming and operations to focus on regenerative agriculture with the goal to "regenerate millions of acres of degraded grazing lands across the United States."

Noble defines regenerative agriculture as not focusing on inputs, such as fertilizer. "Instead, regenerative agriculture uses interactions among soil, plants, water and animals to help build resilience in the soil. Resilient soil is more drought- and flood-resilient, decreases the use of chemical inputs (and related costs), reduces water contaminants, enhances wildlife habitats, and captures carbon in the soil to mitigate climate variability."

Noble will use this definition to focus its programing exclusively on regenerative ranching, which applies regenerative principles specifically to grazing lands. Noble noted grazing lands amount to about 655 million acres nationally -- "making grazing the nation's single largest land use."

Steve Rhines, president and CEO of Noble, stated, "Land stewardship is a core value held by many farmers and ranchers."

He added, "Regenerative agriculture is the next step in the land stewardship journey wherein farmers and ranchers reduce their reliance on conventional practices and concentrate on restoring or regenerating the soil. The soil is the cornerstone of a healthy ecosystem and a productive farm or ranch."

Noble is committing its 14,000 of grazing acres and livestock operations in southern Oklahoma to education and demonstration projects to help producers shift from conventional to regenerative management. Noble noted that the aim is to focus on technical knowledge, but also, "It will provide science-based study of the economics of regenerative land stewardship in grazing animal production."

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